The cool thing about getting old is that when you say you’ve never seen anything like this before, it means something.
I’m old, and I have never seen anything like the rush to reform police departments in Aurora, in Colorado and across the country. Never.
Don’t stop now. We’re almost there.
It’s not like I haven’t seen and covered a lifetime of angst over how police enforce the law, from both sides.
Like most reporters, I started my career working late, weekend and overnight beats covering the ebb and flow of crime: car crashes, shootings, drug busts, lurid murders, Christmas gift giveaways, lost dogs. I’ve stood next to, behind and shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of cops for that many occasions.
My takeaway is that the Hollywood movie cliche of the power-hungry bully cop is incredibly rare. Oh, they’re there, all right. But the vast majority of cops I’ve encountered are big-hearted do-gooders who actually hate traffic stops even more than you do.
They’re mostly nosy, curious types that like to be liked and have an irreverent sense of humor they honed long before donning a badge.
Most of the cops I know were as horrified by the video depicting a guy in a uniform and badge crushing the life out of George Floyd as was every other decent human.
If they share a troublesome quality, it’s that they’re too quick to overlook mistakes made by the public — and each other. It means that, by and large, it isn’t an army of corrupt or incompetent police men and women who are a problem. It’s the bureaucracies and agencies they work for that creates problems.
Those agencies, including Aurora and every other police and sheriff department in the region, are set up to police themselves. That’s because most police officials don’t believe civilians and laymen can understand the nuances of enforcing the law.
They’re wrong, and that’s the problem. That’s been the problem for decades.
In Aurora, Denver and across the state, police depend on peer review in one form or another to sort out the daily missteps cops make. The problems are inevitable when hundreds of cops interact under bad and wretched conditions with thousands of people every single day.
Most prosecutors and police leaders believe someone must be expert at enforcing the law to be able to judge whether a cop is doing their job right or wrong.
I think that’s because most cops and prosecutors think most of the public isn’t nearly as observant as they are. They think the civilian public is incapable of understanding the difficulty of split-second decisions made with hands on gun triggers.
In precluding open investigations and meaningful reviews by the public, police undermine trust in who they are and what they do. The harder the public has pushed for truly transparent, public oversight, the harder most police agencies have pushed back.
Police unions here and across the nation have practically made it job one to ensure that only police police themselves.
So it’s astounding that — after decades of resistance by cops and lawmakers who’ve staunchly sided with them on how much latitude they need to do their job, and how the benefit of the doubt must always be afforded law enforcers and not alleged law breakers — that an entire nation of police agencies and elected officials folded in a matter of days. Make no mistake, a solid push for police reform has been relentless since the early 1960s. It’s just hasn’t gone anywhere. Until now.
I’ve never seen anything like it, ever. I was expecting arguments about relatively minor changes to take weeks, even months to materialize.
But within a couple of days, police and their staunchest proponents have surrendered choke holds. They’ve agreed to perform their every move on camera. They’ve even given up unlimited and virtually automatic exceptions to killing and maiming suspects.
Most importantly, cops and their agency managers are insisting that every cop has a “duty” to keep each other from using excessive force or acting inappropriately.
Those are real changes that will only improve policing and the public’s trust in police.
Add truly transparent, public independent oversight of police operations, which is for the first time, now within everyone’s reach, and recent historic protests and proposals will become historic changes for the good of police and the public.
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